On Campus at PSU Berks – Relearning at the Start of the Year

The first week of campus ministry is history!  As I mentioned in a post last week, I have already had some adventures with students!  Following that, last Tuesday night we had our annual care package handout.  Each year I invite local churches to donate care packages which we will then hand out to students.  I think it is a great way to show love and grace to the students on campus.  Besides the fact that students get a free gift, the students in CSF have the opportunity to talk for a few brief moments with their peers who may never even consider coming to a Bible study.

This is the fifth year we did this.  Last year we had 301 packages.  I failed to count the grand total this year but I know we had more than 301 (I had three groups give 115, 140 and 40 which totals 295.  I know we had at least four other churches contribute about 10.  I went to Penn State so I am good at math and know that is greater than 301!).

My prayer is that seeds of grace were planted in this ministry.

Our second big activity for the first week was a cookout on Thursday evening.  Or it was supposed to be…

I woke up on Thursday morning to pouring down rain.  It was raining at 6 AM and it was still raining at 9:30.  The weather report said 85-100% chance of rain throughout the day, until 8 PM.  I wanted to make a decision early whether to have the cookout or not.  That way, if we canceled there would be plenty of time to let people know what we were doing instead.

So after consulting with the student leaders, we postponed the cookout.  Then we hit Facebook, e-mail and text message to let every possible person who may have been coming know the cookout was delayed.

Naturally, as the day progressed, the weather report changed.  The chance of rain went from 100% to 85 to 65 to 35 to 15%.  I sat glumly on campus at 5 PM, the time the cookout would have started, looking out the window of the cafe at a beautiful sunny afternoon.

The funny thing is, I recall the same thing happening about five years ago.  It was my second year of ministry and we were having a cookout, though then we waited till late September.  The rain came down so after consulting with a few student leaders we postponed.  A few hours later it was beautiful.

The difference was that five years ago we did not check the weather.  It was pouring at 2 PM so we figured it would be pouring at 5.  This time it was pouring much earlier in the day, but we checked both The Weather Channel and Accuweather.

What’s the lesson?  Meteorologists know a lot.  But sometimes they are wrong.

Not very profound, I know.

Perhaps we could just say God is in control.  Of course, what does that mean?  Interpreting the weather to figure out what God is trying to tell us seems unwise, since we can push any issue we want (as was seen recently with at least one politician trying to interpret hurricane Irene).  Also, if God is “trying” to tell us something through the weather, God just looks weak.  To me, it brings up more problems then it solves (like why doesn’t God do something clearer to get our attention?).

Maybe the lesson is just to have patience.  After a long summer of preparing for ministry I want everything to be perfect.  My nightmare is a bunch of people standing in the rain trying to cook hamburgers (actually, that might be fun).  Another nightmare is a new freshman going to a cookout on a sunny Thursday afternoon and no one being there because she did not get the notice it was canceled.  What if she never comes to CSF?  What if she falls away from her faith!  It could be the turning point in someone’s life!

Yes, I think the lesson is to just relax.  This ministry is not about me.  It does not ultimately rely on my talents or planning or really anything I can do.  I tend to forget that over the summer, but as I start working with college students, flying by the seat of my pants, I remember.  I remember that I have a job to do, that I should do it the best I can, but I should not freak out over it.  The reason not to freak out over it is that there is still a Holy Spirit at work in the world.  I am glad I relearned that lesson in the first week.


I stink at praying (Listening to the Saints)

I stink at praying.  When I was a kid I was told that if you want to be a good Christian you need to pray, read the Bible and be involved in church.  The latter two were never really a problem for me.  But praying?  I knew I was supposed to pray so I would try, but my mind would wander to what went on at work the previous night or what was happening in the latest Star Wars novel I was reading (I used to read lots of Star Wars novels…I was a nerd, but I could probably tell you a lot about the Star Wars universe up to what was written in 2001).  Nevertheless, when I was in college, or teaching Sunday school at my home church, or working at summer camp, I passed on the same tips: good Christians pray, read the Bible and get involved in a church community (or on campus, a Christian ministry).

By the time I was in college, when I prayed my mind would wander to different things (Did that girl I liked like me in return?  How come Penn State was so bad at football during my time on campus?).  At the same time, I was starting to realize the beauty of grace in all things in life.  I think when I was younger my desire to pray or read scripture was more fear based: if I did not pray today and something bad happened it was God getting me!  With maturity I realized God did not work in this way (and in my religious studies class I learned that this was called karma and though many Christians act as if they believe it, it is definitely NOT a Christian belief).

Over the years I have realized that prayer is not about quantity (5 minutes a day…20 minutes a day…wow, that guy prays for 2 hours each morning!).  It is about quality.  I’d rather really connect with God one day a week than go through the motions out of fear or necessity every day.  Also, prayer is not something you do for a bit to start your day and then stop.  Rather, we are to pray continually which I take to mean being in constant communion with God.

Yet, while all of this is true, there is still a danger such things could become an excuse for not praying (I pray continually…well, I occasionally remember Jesus died for me…I tend not to forget God exists…ok, I never pray).  We have plenty of examples from scripture of people setting aside a time in their day to intentionally commune with God.

Another challenge for me is that prayer often seems so inactive, like you just sit there and talk to your imaginary friend.  Yes, some of my more “spiritual” Christian friends report experiences with God that I wish I had.  For me, it seems like I just sit there.  If I am sitting there, I might as well read something!

Over the years I have realized how faulty the whole “pray, read the Bible, go to church” formula is.  It is too individualistic.  It also leaves out serving others (do we ever live the Bible or do we just read it?).  It is also too “one-size-fits-all”.  I have come to recognize that some people feel close to God sitting in a room and quietly meditating, some people connect with God hiking in the woods or playing guitar in their room.  Others feel closest to God while volunteering at a Food Bank or serving in some other way.

But with all that said, I still believe Christians ought to spend time with God in prayer.  Having a family, I spend time each day with my wife praying for our daughter after we put her in her crib for the night.  Before our daughter was born my wife and I often read a bit of scripture and prayed while eating breakfast.  Why should this be less valued than praying to God alone…the emphasis on aloneness again seems to reek of individualism again.

I think part of the reason I have had such trouble praying is that I have been taught to pray as a sort of free-flowing talking to God.  Perhaps this is a symptom of the charismatic side of evangelicalism that focuses (explicitly or implicitly) on emotions.  The impression is that true worship and true prayer are spontaneous.

Of course, try treating your wife this way.  Don’t plan a romantic date, just do whatever comes spontaneously!  For me, this is usually when I say dumb things and get in trouble.

Anyway, so I have been working my way through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Calvin, as you probably know, is one of the great Reformers of the 1500s.  At this time the Roman Catholic Church was quite corrupt and many, such as Calvin, saw it was beyond hope.  New churches formed, with a renewed vitality and emphasis on Scripture and grace.

Calvin’s Institutes is THE theology text of this era, systematizing the beliefs of the Protestant Reformers.  Going in, I expected a lot of theology.  So I was pleasantly surprised with what I found to be the most moving section in the Institutes: when Calvin talks about prayer.  He spends a lot of time on this and says some great things, focusing on the Lord’s Prayer as our model:

For he prescribed a form for us in which he set forth as in a tablet all that he allows us to seek of him, all that is of benefit to us, all that we need ask.  From this kindness of his we receive great fruit of consolation: that we know we are requesting nothing absurd, nothing strange or unseemly – in short, nothing unacceptable to him – since we are asking almost in his own words (Institutes 3.20.34)

I have also been reading The Way of Perfection by Teresa of Avila.  She lived at the same time as Calvin, but in Spain, and she remained firmly in the Catholic Church.  Teresa sent The Way of Perfection to those above her in the church hierarchy to make sure it was in line with the teaching of the Church.  Contrast that with Calvin who was only concerned that it was faithful to the Bible.

Teresa and Calvin have very little in common. So where they agree, they are probably right.  Well, Teresa also sees the Lord’s Prayer as the model for our prayers:

Do you suppose that, because we cannot hear Him, He is silent? He speaks clearly to the heart when we beg Him from our hearts to do so. It would be a good idea for us to imagine that He has taught this prayer to each one of us individually, and that He is continually expounding it to us. The Master is never so far away that the disciple needs to raise his voice in order to be heard; He is always right at his side. I want you to understand that, if you are to recite the Paternoster (the Lord’s Prayer) well, one thing is needful: you must not leave the side of the Master Who has taught you” (Way of Perfection chapter 24).

I stink at praying.  That said, when I take the advice of Calvin and Teresa (and pretty much anyone else who has written on prayer since Jesus) and pray the Lord’s Prayer, I do better.  If you meditate on the words, the very words Jesus gave to you, you pray in the language of Scripture.

In the end, maybe stinking at praying is a symptom of too quickly separating prayer from Scripture.  The Bible is filled with prayers, primarily the Lord’s Prayer but also the Psalms and many others.  Reading slowly, meditating on these words, praying them back to God…that helps me pray.

Recent Reads – College Mindset List!

Each year Beloit College releases a “mindset list“.  The goal is to provide “a look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college this fall”.

I love reading this list each year as it provides a window into the world incoming freshman have grown up in.  Some of my favorites from this year include (anything after a dash is my own brief comments):

1. There has always been an Internet ramp onto the information highway. – Remember a time before the Internet?  These kids don’t.

9. “Don’t touch that dial!”….what dial? – Haha.

15. O.J. Simpson has always been looking for the killers of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman. – I remember sitting in school watching the verdict of the OJ trial on television.  College freshman were not even born yet!

20. Life has always been like a box of chocolates. – I wonder if these kids have seen Forest Gump?

37. Music has always been available via free downloads. – So why buy CDs?  And what’s a cassette?

56. They’ve always wanted to be like Shaq or Kobe: Michael Who?

60. Frasier, Sam, Woody and Rebecca have never Cheerfully frequented a bar in Boston during primetime.

61. Major League Baseball has never had fewer than three divisions and never lacked a wild card entry in the playoffs.

The world is always changing and I think this list is a must read for those who work with college students.

On Campus at Penn State Berks – A Sunday Evening Adventure

This past Sunday the new student leadership team came to my house for a planning meeting.  After a tasty dinner of chicken and corn on the cob we spent time talking about what everyone did over the summer and what we hope to do on campus in the fall.

About three and a half hours after arriving, they left.  Then two of them came back…Brandon’s care had been towed!

Before they arrived I had sent them a text message saying “come around back”.  What I meant was park in the front and walk around back where I would be grilling.  That way they would not bother the dog or the baby by ringing the doorbell.  Unfortunately, Brandon interpreted this as “park in the back”.  So when he arrived, he parked behind my house.  In the alley.  Blocking the alley.

If I had known he had parked there, I would have told him to move.  But it started pouring down rain right when they arrived so we all ran inside.  And there the car sat, just waiting to be towed.

Upon learning the car was gone I called the Wyomissing police who gave me the number for KC Towing in Exeter.  I called the answering service there and they told me there would be no one in the office until 7 AM the next day.  Did I mention Brandon is a commuter who lives 45 minutes away?  I was all set to let him crash on our couch or even borrow Emily’s car.  But when Brandon told his mother the situation, she called the towing place and bribed them (literally, offered $20) to let him get his car now.

What bothered me about the situation was that whichever of my neighbors called the police, no one made an effort to find out where the person who owned the car was.  Do not get me wrong: the car was parked illegally and thus having it towed was perfectly fine.  But the care was parked directly behind my house.  If I came upon a car parked illegally I would at least knock on the doors of the closest houses to see if the person who owned the car was there.  That way, if I have to call the police to tow it, at least I am comforted in knowing I made an effort not to be a jerk.

I am not saying to knock on every house on the block.  But I am saying to at least knock on the 3-4 houses closest to the location of the car.

Maybe this just means I should, after one year of living here, try to get to know more of my neighbors across the alley!

I also thought it was weird that, apparently, the police officer sat in his car, watching Brandon’s car for half an hour.  I don’t fault the police officer, he was just doing his job.  But wouldn’t it make more sense to either just tow it right away (it’s no more illegal in half an hour) or to go knock on a few doors?

So Brandon, Josh (a student who lives on campus and was driven to my house by Brandon) and I got in my car to go to the towing place.  It should have been no problem, about a ten minute drive.  I got on the highway that takes you there and came upon a long line of unmoving traffic!  There have been an accident just a few minutes before and all lanes were blocked.

The guy at the towing place said he would be there at 9:15.  We were stuck in traffic at 8:55…and sat there as the clock pushed on close to 10 PM.  Brandon called the guy and he said he would wait (“s*** happens” were his exact words; I think Brandon’s mom must have offered a good bribe).

At one point, two tow trucks came up behind us on the shoulder, going to help clear the accident.  We freaked out!  How come those tow trucks, coming from the direction of my house, were not the ones to tow the car?  If they had towed the car, the tow trucks in Exeter, closer to the accident, could have been on the scene sooner.  It was like two log trucks passing each other on the highway.

Eventually the fire police came by and told us they were going to start having us turn around and go back the way we came (thus, going west on the eastbound side of the highway to the previous exit).  I had been tempted to do this anyway.  There were only about six cars behind me as the highway was closed only minutes after I drove past.  Also, there was a large gap, at least fifty feet, between me and the line of traffic.  Making a u-turn would be easy.

Then the fire police told us that instead of allowing us to u-turn, they were going to open one lane.  So we waited kept waiting.

Until I saw it.  A solitary pickup truck must have managed to do a u-turn and he drove past us on the shoulder.  That was all the motivation I needed.  I turned around and began driving back the way we had come.  Driving the wrong way on a highway for the first time (and hopefully only time) in my life was quite invigorating.  Also invigorating were the four cars that followed me.

When I got to the exit (well, on ramp) the fire police person there gave me this look as if to say, where did you come from?  She asked me what I was doing and I mumbled something.  The policeman had a small grin, as if there comes a point in every line of traffic stopped for an accident when the people at the end begin turning around, and waved us through.

Finally, about 10:15, we got to the towing place.  

I drove home on the same highway…and naturally by the time I got to where the accident was, it was clear.  There were no traces of it!  They had not opened one lane to let cars through, they just opened them both.  In the 25 minutes it took me to u-turn, go another way, wait to make sure Brandon had his car, and head home, the traffic was cleared.

A lesson is: If you are stuck in a long line of traffic due to an accident and you know the road behind you is closed, just make a u-turn.  The longer you wait, the more likely it is that when you finally do a u-turn you will not actually be gaining any time.

Another lesson: when working with college students, give very specific instructions about where to park.  Don’t leave anything to chance, or they might park in an alley.

With that exciting evening, let the semester begin!

In case you think I made light of an accident, I did hear on the radio the next day that no one was hurt.  Apparently a street sweeper ran into a car that had stopped on the side of the road.  One last thing, apparently Brandon almost hit a deer on the way home.  Thankfully, he avoided it.  Praise the Lord.

The Moral Landscape

I recently picked up “New Atheist” Sam Harris’ latest book, The Moral Landscape.  As I read itI wondered if Sam Harris would be good to have as a neighbor. He is a strong believer in objective morality. Many Christians believe that atheists are all terrible people with no morals. Sam Harris shows that this stereotype is false (though he would go a step further and say it is most Christians who have poor morals). As a moral guy who cares about issues in the world, Sam Harris would be a good neighbor.

The problem is, I am a Christian. For that reason, I fear Sam Harris would not like me. I would hope that if we got together with our wives to play Settlers of Catan, or perhaps watched a football game (does Penn State every play UCLA?) we could get along. Could we disagree and still live in neighborly friendliness?  I have read all three of Sam Harris’ books and I am not confident that this would be possible, as he shows a deep and bitter anger towards Christians. Not that I blame him for this, the hate mail he has received from people of faith has not done much to bring any sort of reconciliation.

In The Moral Landscape, Harris presents an argument for objective morality. He opposes secular scientists and philosophers who argue that there are objective facts in science but when it comes to morality, objectivity is gone. Harris sees this moral relativism as false. Worse, he sees in it secularists conceding objective morality to people of faith. His goal is to provide an argument for morality from a secular perspective.

Harris defines “good” as that which supports human well-being. Determining human well-being rests mostly on the science of the brain, which Harris admits is still relatively new. Thus his book is not a final argument for a specific morality. Science is not at a place to do that yet. Instead it is an argument that science does speak to issues of morality and over time will do so more and more.

As a Christian I tried to come to this book as open-minded as possible. In other words, I expected to disagree (much as an atheist expects to disagree when coming to a Christian text, we’re none of us unbiased). But I tried to give Harris a fair hearing. I am sure there were some specific arguments I did not fully grasp, for I am not a trained scientist. I suspect many of those arguments were in the chapter on belief (chapter three), which I found to be the most interesting and insightful chapter in the book. Overall, I still am a Christian and I still find arguments for morality from a naturalistic perspective wanting.

Harris’ argument seems to be a form of utilitarianism – maximizing the good (well-being) and minimizing the bad. It is difficult to see how this can be measured, which I believe has been the main critique of utilitarianism over the years. Besides that, if Harris is right that well-being is the key, the question is whose well being? Why should I care about the well-being of others if it does not affect my own well-being? He reports an exchange he had with a scientist at a conference who said she has no issue with the Taliban’s violence against women because that is just the way their culture is. Harris was appalled at this. But if I am happy, if my wife and kids are healthy and my life is comfortable, why should I care about these people on the other side of the world? Perhaps Harris cares, and good for him. But if I am an atheist, I only have this one life to live and then I am gone forever. The Taliban is thousands of miles away and I do not want to bother with it. I would rather enjoy my life.

The same basic question came up a few times as I read. He seems to lament the fact that more people spend their time playing video games than working to help the homeless (p. 70). Again, if such people were lucky enough (or worked hard enough) to have a comfortable life, why not play video games? Who is Harris or any of us to tell them they should live in a different way? Of course, Harris’ whole project is to prove that science does provide such “shoulds”. I just don’t see it.

Likewise, he shares a story of his wife being hit on at the gym (p. 51). He was glad she resisted the flirting of this other man and he speaks of how an affair would damage the well-being of his family. I am glad for Harris that his wife is loyal. But if she had chosen to cheat on him…what if that increased her own and this other man’s well-being? What if this man was a widower with four children? Perhaps stealing Harris’ wife would hurt Harris’ daughter, but it could help these other four children? Isn’t that more human well-being?

My point is that judging morality in these ways is unsatisfying. Further, if all that matters is human well-being, why not envision a scenario from a movie like The Matrix where all humans are plugged into a computer? If such an existence would make us happiest, why not? Or as one reviewer says: “Nobel Prize–winner Daniel Kahneman studies what gives Americans pleasure—watching TV, talking to friends, having sex—and what makes them unhappy—commuting, working, looking after their children.” (http://nationalinterest.org/bookreview/s… )

Harris also rejects free will, while assuring us that this does not lead to determinism or fatalism. (103-105). Reading his argument for this, I felt like I was reading John Calvin (and Harris may be surprised to find that Calvin would agree with him in this assessment, though for different reasons). Harris says we believe in free will because we are ignorant of the causes of our actions in each moment (105). He goes on to say:

“But the fact that our choices depend on prior causes does not mean that they do not matter. If I had not decided to write this book, it wouldn’t have written itself. My choice to write it was unquestionably the primary cause of its coming into being. Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are all causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world. Human choice, therefore, is as important as fanciers of free will believe” (105)

“There is a distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, but it does nothing to support the common idea of free will…the former are associated with felt intentions (desires, goals, expectations, etc.) while the latter are not…a voluntary action is accompanied by the felt intention to carry it out, while an involuntary action isn’t. Where our intentions themselves come from, however, and what determines their character in every instant, remains perfectly mysterious in subjective terms…the freedom to do what one intends, and not to do otherwise, is no less valuable than it ever was” (105-106). 

If there is no free will, then however the intentions, goals and such that arise in us, we are not responsible for them. So how are we responsible for the actions they lead to in the world? He goes on to say, “What we condemn in another person is the intention to do harm” (108). Why condemn something that this person has not freely chosen? Why hold them responsible? It seems more consistent to say that we don’t have free will and thus we are subject to whatever combination of natural desires made us who we are.

Harris did make a huge point that Christians should listen to (123-124). Here Harris talks of how the internet has reduced intellectual isolation but it has also allowed bad ideas to flourish. He goes on to say that the less competent a person is in a given domain, the more he will overestimate his abilities, in other words ignorant people are more confident (123). He applies this to debates between science and religion:

“When a scientist speaks with appropriate circumspection about controversies in his field, or about the limits of his own understanding, his opponent will often make wildly unjustified assertions about just which religious doctrines can be inserted into the space provided. Thus, one often finds people with no scientific training speaking with apparent certainty about the theological implications of quantum mechanics, cosmology, or molecular biology” (124)

I have to say, I agree with Harris here. Christians do no one any good when assuming that just because they are Christians, they are right about everything. For example, Christians should have no problem admitting that Richard Dawkins (or Sam Harris) knows more about science than they do (unless said Christian has degrees in science).

But to turn this critique around on Harris, he often writes as if he possesses a better knowledge of Christian faith than Christians do. He declares the Bible is in favor of slavery, quoting chapter and verse. This sort of surface-level understanding of the text seems to be the same surface-level understanding he decries when Christians approach science. Why not engage with the best Bible scholars? Or at the very least, try to get inside the culture in which the Bible was written to try to understand if there is more going on.

Would it matter to Harris that though the Bible allows slavery, it puts regulations on this slavery that put the slave in a much higher position than slaves in the surrounding culture? Probably not, as the idea of progressive revelation does not seem to carry much weight for Harris. Harris, like some other atheists, seem to say if God exists then God would do xyz (says who?). At any rate, if he wants to be as fair to Christians as he expects people to be to scientists, he should recognize that proof-texting is not valid biblical interpretation.

The same critique could be applied to history. Harris rolls out the rhetoric that Christians in the middle-ages burned witches on a regular basis. But Rodney Stark has shown that witches were rarely burned in the middle-ages, instead witch-burning became most popular at the same time as modern science was beginning to rise (see For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, With-Hunts and the End of Slavery).

This book has me wanting to read more about brain science, especially books that limit the tangents. Harris seems to be writing for an audience that he knows will agree with him, so he throws out rhetoric and red herrings every now and then, to remind us how dumb religion is. I am not sure what the point of the chapter on religion was (chapter four) other than just to smack around religion for a while. In this I am sure Harris comes across as a hero to those who agree. To me, it sounds like the same sort of arrogance that Harris hates when ignorant Christians discount the findings of science.

While I would like to read more about how the brain works, and I assume science will continue to shed light on this, I do not think it is possible to find morality (or meaning, which is a separate question) here. Jerry Coyne in his book Why Evolution is True talks about how when a lion takes over a pride he will kill the baby lions to rid himself of the competition. Of course, no person would say that lion was a murderer or was evil. Yet when I listen to the History of Rome podcast and learn of how many emperors upon coming into power would kill their relatives or relatives of the previous emperor to solidify their power, I see this as murder. What makes humans different? If we are just animals, or if such murder increases the well-being of the emperor and his empire, why is it wrong?

I still agree with Ivan Karamazov in the amazing novel, The Brothers Karamazov: “if there is no God, then all things are permissible“. If Harris is wrong and there is no objective morality from a secular view, it does not automatically mean there is a God. Perhaps life just is meaningless. That is what Ivan believed, and it angered him as this philosophy justified his father’s disgusting life. I think Ivan is right. If there is no God then what reason can you really give a person to choose to help the poor rather than spend their days playing video games?

Online Reviews

Listening to the Saints – Aquinas

For some reason I keep wanting to read Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic scholar who lived from 1225-1274.  Perhaps it is because he remains the most influential Roman Catholic theologian today.  I have read Augustine and Calvin so I want to tackle the other greats.  But I tried Aquinas before (reported here) and failed miserably.

Then I was playing around on the Kindle and discovered I could buy the entire Summa Theologica, Aquinas’ greatest work, for one dollars.  As I read reviews, I laughed at this one:

When I bought my Kindle I had a little pang of regret… “was this REALLY worth the money?” I thought to myself.

And then I started shopping with it.

This is the ENTIRE Summa Theologica, This is THE medieval masterpiece of Theology; it still in my opinion the greatest work ever written next to the Bible.

The content of this book is remarkable. This edition has a complete linked table of contents. It has the entire text. It is PERFECT.

Of course, there is the price.

The ENTIRE Summa (all the volumes) for A BUCK.


That is absolutely stunning. The Kindle almost paid for itself as soon as I downloaded this file to it.

What a great deal… what a wonderful work of Theology!

My sentiments exactly.  What could it hurt to spend one dollar and give Aquinas a try?

Well, I have read the first few sections and am already enjoying this much more than my previous attempt at Aquinas.  Maybe the lesson is to steer clear of “assorted writing” type works and just dive into the author’s own work, unabridged.  I have no goal on when to finish it, my plan is just to read a chapter here and there and maybe get it done in ten years or so.

The first “question” Aquinas addresses is “The Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine (In Ten Articles)”.  Aquinas immediately discusses what sort of knowledge is necessary:

“It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical science built up by human reason…it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation” (1. Q1, Art. 1)

Basically, at least as I understand it, Thomas’ argument is that both philosophy and scripture (natural revelation and special revelation) provide truth.  Thomas has confidence in natural philosophy, saying that philosophy can lead a person to belief in God.  But philosophy cannot take someone the whole way to the deepest truth, to get there one needs scripture (for a fuller explanation of Thomas’ philosophy: here).

Working with college students, this makes me think of vocation.  I fear that Christian students often see their studies in the classroom as separate from their spiritual life in the campus ministry or at church.  One of my goals is for them to see that their study for their class can be a form of worship.  God has called each student to a specific career and this calling is not separate from their calling as a follower of Jesus.  In whatever study they undertake, they are pursuing truth, and in whatever career they have they are serving God.  There is value in study of natural things, as Aquinas affirmed.

Ultimate, final truth is found in the person of Jesus and revealed in Scripture.  But may we not use that to devalue the study of the natural world.

I also thought this quote was great:

“Hence the fact that some happen to doubt about articles of faith is not due to the uncertain nature of the truths, but to the weakness of human intelligence; yet the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge of lesser things” (1, Q. 1, Art. 5)

I meet a lot of Christian college students who face very difficult questions from their skeptical peers.  Encouraging the student not to worry is not to say that there is no good answer to such questions.  When dealing with the subject of God of course there will be some doubt.  Yet as Aquinas seems to say, even a tiny knowledge of God, fraught with doubt, is worth more than the deepest knowledge of quantum mechanics, molecular biology or any other subject.

“For what He is not is clearer to us than what He is” (1, Q 1., Art. 9)

There is a long tradition of talking about God not by saying what God is (i.e. God is just, God is love) but by saying what God is not (i.e. God is not finite, God is not hate).  I think the idea is that God is so beyond our comprehension that we cannot really say what God is.  Thus, it is better to try to say what God is not.

Well, that is my thoughts on the first part of the Summa…